The liberal voice of US radio forced to shut up

As Air America goes off the airwaves, it's another blow for the left – but how serious is its demise, or had the station simply had its day, asks David Usborne

After years of brushing treetops and church spires, Air America, the radio network that was meant to be the broadcast antidote to the conservative baritone of Rush Limbaugh and the right-wing rantings of Michael Savage, has finally crashed and burst into flames. The last of its original programming went out on Thursday night.

The demise of the network, founded in 2004 with the likes of Al Franken and Janeane Garofolo at the microphone, is one more blow to liberals in the US whose week began with the loss of Ted Kennedy's senate seat in Massachusetts. But it was not a big surprise. Air America never really gained the altitude it needed to survive.

That the company was giving up the ghost for good – there was an earlier bankruptcy filing in 2006, but it stayed on the air – was announced to the world on the Air America website. Repeats of old programmes will be available to its 100-odd affiliate stations around the country until Monday, but thereafter it will cease to exist.

"The very difficult economic environment has had a significant impact on Air America's business. This past year has seen a perfect storm in the media industry," the company said. "We are proud that Air America's mission lives on through the words and actions of so many former radio hosts who are active today in progressive causes and media nationwide."

The legacy of Air America may well lie in the rising careers of a few of its alumni. Mr Franken, who came to the station with a CV that included comedy writing at Saturday Night Live and authoring books skewering Republicans, left the network in 2007 to launch his successful bid for a US Senate seat in Minnesota.

Then there is the phenomenon of Rachel Maddow, who laboured for years in off-prime-time slots at Air America before someone finally cottoned on to her growing popularity and gave her greater prominence. With success came more opportunities, however, and Ms Maddow eventually left the network to begin her own – increasingly high-profile – political talk show on the liberal-leaning 24-hour TV news outlet, MSNBC.

But while some on-air personalities prospered, the network itself did not. At the end, many of its 100 affiliates around the country were obscure stations with miniscule audiences. Abritron, the company that measures radio ratings in the US, recently noted that it could not detect any listeners at all in Washington DC where Air America was available on WZAA. What, no liberals listening in the nation's capital?

Mr Limbaugh, who has been a dominant presence on America's AM dial since 1991, may have put his finger on it soon after it launched. It was over-earnest. "First, you have to entertain people," he said. "You have to make it interesting to listen. I don't hear that".

Others faulted Air America precisely for hiring comedians and actors, such as Franken and Garofolo, who had no experience of filling the radio airwaves for two or three hours without pause and consequently made a mess of it.

They "held a year-long, on-the-air school of self-taught broadcasting. Nobody in charge realised that talking every weekday on the radio is a learned art," noted Richard Corliss of Time magazine last night.

In recent years, voices who had appeared to be gaining good followings included Ron Kuby, a civil rights lawyer whose clients have included associates of the Gambino Mafia family, and Ron Reagan, the son of former president Ronald Reagan, who until this week was considered one of the network's freshest and biggest draws.

Air America's sudden appointment with the reaper, while gloomy news for liberals, helped fuel the celebrations that conservatives have been holding since the win of Scott Brown – "Senator Beefcake" – in Massachusetts and the very public disarray it has prompted within the party of President Barack Obama.

"The passing of Air America is another reminder that our nation is centre-right and the ideas of Barack Obama, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi will never take root in this great country," Paul Cooper, a conservative pundit asserted on NewsReal.

Given how far down the ratings pole Air America had slipped, this may be overstating the impact of its collapse. And it is not true that without Air America, the citizens of the US are bereft of liberal voices on the radio dial.

The news magazines of National Public Radio – Morning Edition and All Things Considered, in particular – are the first refuge of most people who still have trouble believing that George Bush became president.

What is missing, perhaps, is a place where left-leaning commentators can win a national audience by ranting and raving like the right-wing radio commentators do. But the Left just isn't as good at that as the Right. Which is where Air America's problem may have been right from the beginning.

Air America's star jocks: What happened next

Al Franken

Air America and Al Franken needed one another. A co-founder of the network in 2004, Franken gave it both a sheen of cheeky wit – Franken was a sketch writer for NBC's Saturday Night Live for years and author of books with titles like Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations – and seriousness of thought. For Franken, the network opened a door to a real career in politics. He is now, of course, the junior US Senator from Minnesota.

Rachel Maddow

If the greatest challenge was to nurture on-air personalities that could out-fox Fox, then Air America may have come closest to success with Maddow, who also happens to be the second-best-known lesbian on the US broadcast landscape. (The other being Ellen DeGeneres.) But once the network started to promote her with better and bigger time slots on its schedules, television executives began to take notice. She is now one of MSNBC's biggest stars.

Janeane Garofolo

Another of Saturday Night Live's famous alumni, Garofolo was the other high-profile hire at Air America when it started. She was known to audiences from stints in the NBC hit The West Wing and the long-lamented HBO Comedy Half-Hour's The Larry Sanders Show. But nor were her political views a secret, as she used her prominence in 2003 to speak out against the invasion of Iraq. She left her regular Air America spot in 2006.